By The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
Most states have downsized their prison populations in recent years, but the pace of decarceration is insufficient to undo nearly four decades of unrelenting growth.
The recent pace of decline would take 72 years to cut the US prison population by 50%, according to a new analysis by The Sentencing Project’s Senior Research Analyst Nazgol Ghandnoosh.
US Prison Population Trends: Massive Buildup and Modest Decline finds that 39 states and the federal government had downsized their prisons as of 2017.
Five states—Alaska, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut and New York—led the nation in reducing their prison populations by more than 30% since reaching their peak levels.
Some Southern states, which have exceptionally high rates of incarceration, also achieved double-digit percentage reductions in their prison populations since reaching their peak levels, including Alabama (25%), South Carolina (17%), Louisiana (16%), and Mississippi (15%).
Fourteen states downsized their prisons by less than 5%.
Eleven states, led by Arkansas, had their highest ever prison populations in 2017. Additionally, Alaska—one of the current leaders in state decarceration—repealed several aspects of its major criminal justice reform initiatives in 2019.
While some critics have charged that decarceration would lead to rising crime, states with the most substantial reductions in their prison populations have often outpaced the nationwide crime drop.
Clearly, waiting seven decades to substantively alter a system that is out of step with the world and is racially biased is unacceptable. Expediting the end of mass incarceration will require accelerating the end of the Drug War and scaling back sentences for all crimes, including violent offenses for which half of people in prison are serving time.